Once upon a time, as DJs Eddie Stubbs and Gary Henderson frequently remind their listeners, it was all just country music. We didn't make artificial distinctions between New Country, Old Country, Bluegrass and all those flavors-of-the-month. And while the title cut of Murder On Music Row delivers a direct and hard-hitting indictment of The Suits on Music Row, this recording is a great example of how it ought to be.
Make no mistake about it - Murder On Music Row is just plain, unvarnished, hard-core country music. The fact that it's played on bluegrass instruments, by some of the finest bluegrass pickers around, is a lesson in how close country and bluegrass really are.
The Suits deserve the lion's share of the blame for the sorry state of popular country music today. In pursuit of the lowest common denominator (that being the currently dying and not-to-be-lamented Disco Country craze), they have sterilized the life and personality out of country music.
But at the same time, much of the bluegrass industry has turned its back on country music. By denying ties to any current country music and the industry at large, we make it nearly impossible to support even our best and most talented artists. We trash the country music industry while lamenting the alleged lack of respect bluegrass gets. But the fact is, respect for the talents of individual bluegrassers in Nashville has seldom been greater. Many of the top artists in country music - Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, Kathy Mattea and others - have backgrounds in bluegrass. Some mainstream country artists are recording bluegrass and many studio and road musicians - Jerry Douglas, Glenn Duncan, Ward Stout, Gene Elders, to name a few - cut their teeth playing bluegrass.
Murder On Music Row is not your conventional bluegrass recording. Larry Cordle is one of the greatest songwriters working today, but in addition to a whole load of his terrific songs, you'll also find songwriting credits here by Nashville insiders like Melba Montgomery, Carl Jackson, Marty Stuart and Johnny Bond.
Cordle is a fine singer and delivers with style and conviction. But just close your eyes and imagine George Jones singing Jesus and Bartenders, a hard-core, honky-tonk killer of a song. Listen to David Talbot's smoking banjo on J. D. Crowe's Black Jack, or Terry Eldredge singing Carter Stanley's Hard Times with lyrics by Carl Jackson and Marty Stuart. It's all just country music.
Real country isn't dead, of course, and country music runs in cycles anyway. The New Traditionalists like Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, George Strait and, yes, Ricky Skaggs rescued the music from The Suits back in the early 1980s. The alternative country and Americana movements may play the same role in coming years. Today, there's a large and growing audience for traditional artists like Jr. Brown, Dale Watson and the Derailers. And in addition, the Internet provides an outlet for bands to bypass the traditional distribution channels and take their music directly to the public. It's a chance for consumers of real country to vote with their dollars, and it could break the stranglehold The Suits have on what we get to hear and buy.
I'm pretty sure that real country music isn't dead. The Suits have been trying to squeeze the life out of it for, oh…, the past 30 years or so. Every once in a while, though, it manages to show a flicker of its old personality. As long as we've got artists like Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, there will always be some who remember it just like it used to be.